The History of Siem Reap
Cambodia was arguably one of the most wealthiest, highly sophisticated kingdom in the world, which is reflected in the magnificent temples that still stand today.
Siem Reap province is found in northwest Cambodia and is a famous tourist destination with the magnificent Angkor Wat Temple, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Siem Reap city is located in the south of Siem Reap has its own international airport. The name literally means “Siam defeated” and refers to the victory of Cambodia over the army Thailand in the 17th century, where a bitter battle was fought.
At the beginning of the 10th century, it is believed that the ancient town of Hariharalaya (now Roulos) was the capital of the Cambodian empire. It had a population of over 130,000 people and at its height, between the 10th-14th centuries ruled much of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
As the number of citizens quickly grew, the capital was then moved to what we now know as Angkor Thom Archaeology Park then by the 14th century, the area housed a staggering 1 million citizens. Bigger than New York, it was a bustling cosmopolitan city that was trading with other countries around the world.
The Khmer empire was sophisticated, progressive and rich – but the exact amount of wealth this country once held is unknown.
However it is believed Cambodia (Kampuchea) traded with such prosperous countries as China, India and Indonesia by what archaeologists have been able to glean from evidence left behind and written on the sides of temples.
From inscriptions on the walls that still remain today, the fortune the shrines possessed included tons of gold and riches.
Records show that golden statues adorned the inside of these impressive temples with many housing their own treasure trove of riches and jewels.
At the beginning of the 13th century, the countries national religion changed from Hinduism to Buddhist, which is reflected in the architecture and carvings upon the temples – while some believe that this caused the downfall of this mighty empire.
The temples as they stand today, show how advanced the Khmer empire was from both an engineering and architecture perspective, creating some magnificent structures that would be hard to rival today.
Many suspect in the 14th century, Cambodia was invaded by neighboring countries, but due to historical records being lost or destroyed through the ravages of time – we are not really sure what happened? However, much of the nation was left in tatters as the Khmer empire crumbled, while its riches were stolen and a culture decimated.
Many people left the thriving city, while law and order began to disintegrate as this once great metropolis, started to fall into decay.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese arrived in Cambodia and were the first Europeans to explore the Valley of Tonle-Tom. Some of these adventurers decided to settle in the region and have families – to this day, descendants of the Portuguese can still be found in Siem Reap.
By this time, the once thriving capital had dwindled to little more than a village and the French Government began to explore further away from its own shores.
As the French settled it is said that a missionary came across the lost city of Angkor Wat in the early 1860’s while exploring the jungle.
However, it was not until the 1920’s, that serious attempts were underway and the site was being excavated in earnest. As the wild and dense foliage was stripped back – it began to reveal hidden mysteries and secrets of this once great civilization once held.
Finding clues along the way, archaeologist began to come across more grand temples lost within the clutches of the jungle and only then did the shrouds of the Khmer past began to unfold.
The rediscovery of the ancient temples of Siem Reap became a draw card for many visitors from all over the world. News spread quickly of this ancient and wondrous city, which had been uncovered and lost for centuries within with wild jungles of Cambodia.
People suddenly became fascinated with these ancient monuments and hearing stories of their magnificent splendor in the Far East – they came from all parts of the world to Siem Reap.
It is believed that famous celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin (the silent film star) and Jacqueline Kennedy (the wife of J. F. Kennedy) came to see the magnificent Angkor Wat. As the extent of the complex was discovered, this only added fuel to the origins of the mysterious temple and became a curiosity for visitors from all over the planet.
This would soon be interrupted by a massive blow, which would cut through the fabric of Cambodian society and bleed from the heart of this already shattered community.
Pol Pot was a dictator and man that would change the face of Cambodia forever. He single-handed ordered the killing of an estimated 3 million Cambodian people (out of a population of 8 million), that equates to over 1/3 of the entire country.
He was born in the year 1925 to a farming family that lived in central Cambodia – his birth name was Saloth Sar.
Pol Pot as a young boy had a curious mind and had studied as Budhist monk and became the leader of the Khmer Rouge from 1963 – 1997.
In 1969 Pol Pots troops went into Phnom Penh (the capital of cambodia) saying “The American’s were going to bomb their country”.
This was a secret bombing raid headed by Nixon, authenticated without congresses or the people’s approval. More bombs were dropped in Cambodia in this time than on the whole of Japan during WW2.
(See the John Pilger documentary below).
The Khmer Rouge told the occupants that they would only have to leave their house for 3 days, so the frightened families packed up their most needed belongings and left the city in droves.
The devastating bombings disrupted the delicate balance of Cambodia power and triggered a civil war that resulted in countless dead, while food and water quickly became in short supply. This gave the Khmer Rouge a foothold like never before and they seized power by force and drew up a new constitution for Cambodia following the blueprint of Charman Mao.
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia and killed an estimated 3 million people along their bloody trail. This included scholars, artists and progressive thinkers or anyone he thought may have the tenacity to form a resistance against this murderous blanket of power. Even people who wore glasses were targeted – thought of as being clever by the mainly ignorant and uneducated renegades, who was typical of the Khmer Rouge armed forces that had gained power.
It is estimated that almost 90% of intellectuals and artists were systematically eliminated; and it is said that only 9 Cambodian doctors survived this devastating war.
This decimated both the thriving arts and academic communities as many of the free-thinkers were exterminated at the hands of a cold and bitter regime.
If you want to know more about this period, we highly recommend you watch the 3rd film directed by Angelina Jolie. “First They Killed My Father”. A touching and accurate portrayal of one girl’s survival through these dark and scorching years or An Old Woman’s Story of Survival in Cambodia.
During periods of war – or maybe at some other time, much information about Cambodia’s history has been lost. Only the inscriptions carved on the side of temple walls, which still remain today are a testament of what was once lay within as both treasures and secrets.
Lost in these mystery are questions we are unable to answer like: Where are the ashes from the burial jars at Srah Srang that could provide us with valuable DNA about the genetics of these people, the missing plans on how to put Baphuon Temple back together once it was disassembled before the war and where is the Giant Buddha of Tep Pranam Temple?
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Siem Reap entered a lost and terrifying slumber – from which she only began to wake from since the early part of this millennium.
The Cambodian people have had to rebuild their country back together from scratch and Siem Reap is now becoming the premium holiday destination. Central in Asia and bordering Loas, Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is an amazing place to come for a vacation.
Together with its rich history and lots of things to do, many people are now discovering what Siem Reap has to offer.
Create a wonderful memory that will last a lifetime.
WARNING: This documentary may be upsetting to some.